Saturday, May 26, 2007

The New York Times
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May 27, 2007

On This Run, Way More Bandits Than Smokeys (but No Beer)


TODAY is the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” a Burt Reynolds romp that the actor once described as “a little like eating Chinese food — about an hour after you see the movie, you may want to go see another one.”

But for many people, the real star of the movie was the car he drove: a 1977 black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with gold striping and a “thunder chicken” graphic on the hood. With plenty of Hollywood stunts and trick driving, the Trans Am left an impression.

To commemorate the anniversary of the movie, a driving event called the Bandit Run 2007 was held from May 15 to May 17, with about 200 participants in 85 cars traveling the 660 miles from Texarkana, Tex., to Atlanta, the route traveled in the movie. The event was open to anyone; owning a Trans Am was not required.

The movie is about a trucker, nicknamed Snowman and played by Jerry Reed, and his decoy and lookout man, Bandit, played by Mr. Reynolds, who agree to transport 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta. It is Bandit’s job to occupy the police — nicknamed Smokey — so the tractor-trailer of beer can make it to Atlanta without being discovered.

Thirty years ago, Coors beer was not sold in states east of the Mississippi River. In the south, Texas was the cut-off line.

The idea for the Bandit Run was a collaboration of David Hershey of Keller, Tex., and Dave Hall, the owner of Restore a Muscle Car, a restoration shop in Lincoln, Neb., who said they thought it would be fun to recreate the road trip from the movie on its 30th anniversary. Mr. Hall’s shop had restored Mr. Hershey’s 1977 black Pontiac Trans Am SE, or special edition, which replicated the paint scheme of the Trans Am used in the movie. Mr. Hall and Mr. Hershey promoted the event on Motortopia, a motor enthusiast’s Web site. More than 300 joined the Bandit Run group, many posting photos and videos of their cars. Bandit Run participants came to Texarkana from all over the United States.

I wanted to attend, but I also wanted to arrive in the right car, so on April 20 I bought a black 1979 Trans Am with almost 100,000 miles for about $10,000 at a collector-car auction in Branson, Mo. I had always wanted a black Trans Am and this was my excuse to finally fulfill my dream. I bought one like the car in the movie.

Jim Cox, who, along with his wife, Kathy, owns the collector-car auction, found a mechanic to prepare the car for the trip. The air-conditioning was repaired, new front springs were installed, and the tires, brakes and shocks were inspected, adjusted and, in some cases, replaced. The foam was also replaced on the two front seats.

The Bandit Run group gathered with their cars May 15 at the Tex-Ark Antique Auto Museum. The mayors of Texarkana, Tex., and Texarkana, Ark., welcomed us. Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams from most model years were among the 25 or so cars there for the start. More cars, including many Trans Ams, dropped in and out of the run along the route.

Talking with the participants, one theme appeared continually: most were fascinated by the car in the movie and most first saw “Smokey and the Bandit” when they were much younger. Jed Morgan of Call, Tex., said he was “born in 1977, the same year as the movie.”

“I watched the movie likely since I was 3,” he said.

Mr. Morgan, 29, a nursing student, was traveling with his brother, R.J., 18, in a black 1977 Trans Am. Jed Morgan bought his car last year on eBay and is already devoted to it.

“I’ve already made arrangements that my brother will drive it in my funeral procession, if he survives me,” Jed Morgan said. “It will be in front of the hearse.”

We left Texarkana on that Tuesday morning with a police escort. In many of the small towns we drove through, police cars had pulled over with officers standing beside their cars like an informal honor guard. Most officers waved as we passed.

The first leg of our journey, and the longest drive, was on the first day. The 382 miles from Texarkana to Tupelo, Miss., was mostly on rural two-lane roads. We had good weather for most of the trip, with the exception of a cloudburst that happily coincided with a lunch stop.

If the first day had included a hard-luck trophy, our car would have won. About two hours into the trip, we noticed a strong smell of burning rubber. We looked under the hood and discovered that our air-conditioner compressor had seized. The compressor belt was destroying itself trying to turn on an unmovable bracket.

With a cut from a razor blade, we solved one problem only to have another appear. I thought that by removing the tension from one belt, I had changed the dynamic of the others, so I assumed the alternator belt was slipping. Tightening the other belts at our lunch stop did not help.

The problem was diagnosed as a broken fan clutch, a serious problem, but not one that had to be fixed immediately.

We soon stopped at an auto parts store in Greenville, Miss. Five minutes and $30 later, we were on our way with a new fan clutch ready to be installed.

Just outside of Itta Bena, Miss., our car had what could have been a trip-ending breakdown. The driver’s side rear wheel worked its way loose, and by the time we pulled over, three lug studs had sheared off and a third was bent, leaving the wheel attached with just one lug nut.

Had we traveled an additional few feet, the wheel would probably have come off. Our situation seemed pretty hopeless until Mr. Hall, the event organizer, appeared with some spare lug nuts. After scavenging one lug stud and lug nut from the opposite side of our car, we had enough parts to continue to Tupelo, our first overnight stop.

A morning car show in the parking lot of the Tupelo Automobile Museum gave us time to find some parts and fix the car. We were soon on the road, but about two and a half hours later we stopped just outside of Birmingham, Ala., so we could enter the city in a group. While we were waiting for the stragglers, many of the truckers who had been running with us for the last hour gave us a blast of their horns while some passing motorists flashed thumbs up. By now, our group included about 50 cars, the overwhelming majority of them Trans Ams.

Steve Clark, a club D.J., had traveled to the event from Sheffield, England. Mr. Clark, who said he was on his fourth car-related trip to the United States, owns a 1978 Trans Am, but he did not bring it along; he was a passenger in a friend’s 1969 Dodge Charger. Mr. Clark is planning to rent a car and end up in Nashville for the Dukesfest, an event related to “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show.

A lunch stop on the third day at the Talladega Superspeedway, the Nascar track, brought the group together for one last time before reaching Atlanta, about a two-hour drive east. Most of the participants were staying in Atlanta to participate in the Year One Experience, an open house run by Year One, one of the largest suppliers of restoration parts for muscle cars like Trans Ams.

Year One is offering a series of cars that are built using original Trans Ams as their starting point. A fully updated version with supercar performance, the Burt Reynolds Edition BAN II and BAN III, which was shown to the Bandit Run group, still retains much of the exterior look of the original cars. Engines are available up to a 650-horsepower 8.8-liter aluminum block. Fully restored and heavily modified, prices for the BAN II start at $129,900.

On the trip home, I wondered if the owner of a BAN II would have 12 times the fun that I had in my admittedly slower $10,000 original that was so prone to breakdowns.

Somehow, I don’t think that is possible.